The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

In Lieu of Energy Bill, Critics Suggest Alternative Priorities

by Michelle Chen

Environmentalists say a drastically improved US energy policy is within reach, and that for a society with the drive to change its course, the realistic prospects for alternative energy projects are nearly infinite.

Apr. 27, 2005 – What if the energy bill that the House of Representatives just approved were completely rewritten to reverse the assumptions that have guided national energy policy for decades? Proponents of an alternative energy agenda say that idea is not as radical as it may sound.

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In the wake of what environmentalists view as a disastrous piece of energy legislation, an alternative agenda based on clean energy is beginning to crystallize, buoyed by policy ideas to address emerging energy needs that have outgrown the current fossil-fueled based system.

From the point of view of Bracken Hendricks, executive director of the Apollo Alliance, a clean energy coalition, the House bill "fails not only from the environmental perspective but from a social justice and a security [perspective], and the perspective of the workers and communities."

Sustainable energy advocates, who now count among their ranks some organized labor groups and local governments, differ in their policy recommendations but generally agree that the country cannot maintain current patterns of energy consumption. They say the status quo of unchecked consumption derived almost exclusively from fossil fuel and nuclear sources is already undercutting the country’s environmental health, economic security, and geopolitical standing.

Brendan Bell, Washington representative of the Sierra Club, said that opponents of the House bill are working to counter the industry lobby with common sense. "We’re dependent on energy sources that we don’t control, that shackle our foreign policy and pollute our environment," he said. "And it’s just not a smart way to move forward."

Critics: U.S. Energy Policy Running on Empty

As long as policymakers continue to further entrench the current energy system, programs that look clean on the surface will have negligible influence on the energy industry’s dirty practices.

Although the House legislation contains provisions relating to "clean" and "unconventional" fuels and technologies, critics warn that between the lines lies a tacit contract between the government and corporations to ensure that business proceeds as usual.

In Bell’s view, what he sees as an environmental gloss strewn throughout the bill shows that the Bush administration is "trying to sell this because they know Americans want [renewable energy], and they want efficiency." But ultimately, he added, the bill is "really not changing the underlying system."

The distribution of funds lays bare for environmentalists the bias in the administration’s energy priorities: According to the analysis of the US Public Interest Research Group (US PIRG), of an $8 billion tax incentive package, renewable energy and efficiency programs claim 5 percent, leaving the rest for polluting industries to consume.

According to some environmental watchdogs, the House Energy Committee seemed to be promoting energy efficient products when it inserted a provision for upgraded energy-efficiency standards for ceiling fans. But the real authors of the provision were reportedly lobbyists from the appliance superstore Home Depot, which sells half of the ceiling fans sold in the United States. The bill would ensure that the relatively weak federal standard would automatically preempt any more stringent state standard for energy-efficient products.

Proponents of clean energy seek to bridge economic and environmental concerns by showing that the same forces putting the environment at risk also hurt working Americans.

One provision in the bill extends the fuel economy credit system under the Alternative Motor Fuels Act, under which auto manufacturers can work toward mandatory fuel economy standards by producing "dual-fuel vehicles," which can run on both clean-burning and conventional fuels. Since adherence to the CAFE standards is based on the average efficiency in a manufacturer’s product line, dual-fuel cars boost the manufacturer’s overall efficiency. But critics point out that in the absence of a viable market for alternative fuels, the actual benefits of these vehicles for consumers and the environment are negligible.

Another example of how Congress has tarnished the "clean" label, say environmentalists, is the $500 million the House has authorized for so-called "clean coal" initiatives, on top of $1.4 billion in industry-wide tax breaks. Seeing these programs as a slush fund for toxic businesses, advocacy groups argue that coal companies have ample resources to fund their own research, that the subsidized programs are frequently mismanaged, and that the industry lacks both the will and economic incentive to deploy cleaner technologies in the real market.

Navin Nayak, an energy policy analyst with US PIRG, pointed out that although billions of dollars have already been spent on the program since its inception in 1984, "we still are far from having any kind of clean coal project… at a marketable level."

As long as policymakers continue to further entrench the current energy system, say environmentalists, programs that look clean on the surface will have a negligible influence on the energy industry’s dirty practices.

Environmentalists Blaze a Cleaner Path

Opponents of the House bill advocate an energy plan that breaks from the status quo with a combination of economic incentives and federal mandates for efficiency, diversification of fuel sources, and the overhauling of industrial and social infrastructures.

Groups like the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Sierra Club have called for the enactment of a "renewable portfolio standard," which would mandate that over the next two decades the country move toward generating at least 10 percent of its energy from renewable sources.

Renewables – including wind, solar and geothermal energy – currently provide about six percent of the nation’s total electricity, according to the Department of Energy. Though a renewable portfolio initiative did not make it into the final House bill, there is currently stand-alone legislation in both chambers of Congress that would establish a national framework for such an initiative. Nationwide, more than twenty states have already implemented their own renewable energy requirements.

According to the recent analysis by the Union of Concerned Scientists using Department of Energy data, under a standard of just 10 percent renewable energy, consumers would save $13.2 billion between 2002 and 2020, and non-renewable energy prices would fall below current projections because competition from renewable energy would lower natural gas prices.

Significantly raising fuel economy standards for the auto industry, say environmentalists, particularly for gas-guzzling sport utility vehicles, would decrease the burden of rising prices on consumers, spur technological innovation, reduce pollution and increase the global competitiveness of the US auto industry, which has battled dropping sales and the rapid loss of jobs to foreign manufacturers. Sierra Club projects that a dramatic increase in fuel economy could save 3 million barrels of oil per day. In 2004, US oil consumption averaged about 20.5 million barrels per day.

Like the White House, advocacy groups have prioritized reducing oil dependence as part of a progressive energy policy that enhances national security, but they depart sharply from the administration’s focus on maintaining supply by exploiting new natural sources.

Several environmental groups, from the Union of Concerned Scientists to USPIRG have put forth comprehensive energy plans. Though they differ in scope and emphasis, most have massive government subsidies for renewable energy at their heart.

The cost-effectiveness of such programs, argued Hendricks, is a vast improvement on anything in the administration’s mainstream energy policy. Rather than spending billions in military funding to bolster "energy security from a defensive posture," he said, the federal government can spend a fraction of that amount to enhance security from within its borders, by seeding "an economy that’s more secure, and more sustainable, and that creates living wage jobs."

Common Concerns Fuel a Growing Coalition

To counteract industry-backed claims that stricter efficiency standards and other progressive energy policies would disrupt the economy and undercut consumer choice, proponents of clean energy seek to bridge economic and environmental concerns by showing that the same forces putting the environment at risk also hurt working Americans. Conversely, they argue, an aggressive agenda to reshape the energy industry can be complementary to – and perhaps even necessary for – sustainable economic growth.

Hendricks of the Apollo Alliance frames the prospects for clean energy in terms of their benefits to the US economy. Adopting cutting-edge technologies and higher efficiency standards in manufacturing and construction, he explained, would in turn expand demand for skilled labor, generating "a huge engine of jobs and growth and new investment in the economy. And it’s a huge opportunity that’s missed by the current energy bill."

Launching clean energy campaigns in various communities across the country, the Apollo Alliance has promoted diverse, renewable power sources; encouraged investment in new manufacturing sectors like hybrid automobile technology; and pushed environmentally friendly urban construction, like building energy-efficient office facilities and high-performance public transportation systems.

Kevin Curtis, vice president for government affairs at the National Environmental Trust, a research and advocacy group, said that it would not be "politically smart or morally smart" for the clean energy movement to ignore public fears about job security. The steady decline of the automotive sector in recent years has led to tension between organized labor and the environmental movement.

But, he added, problems the auto industry is currently grappling with are eerily reminiscent of the auto industry crisis of the 1970s under the Middle Eastern oil embargo – and in that case, Congress stepped in to raise fuel efficiency standards and ultimately helped lift the industry out of peril.

The struggle now, Curtis explained, is for the environmental community to engage organized labor to build "a domestic auto industry that has good union jobs with good benefits … producing cars that are fuel efficient, and are interesting to consumers."

Cultivating broad-based labor support, the Apollo Alliance has partnered with two-dozen unions, including the United Steel Workers of America, the Transportation Workers Union, and the AFL-CIO. Recently in Washington State, the organization pushed forward an initiative for energy efficient construction projects by helping local officials and labor unions collaborate on a development plan, which provides job training and other community benefits.

The Blue-Green Alliance, a national coalition comprised of unions and environmental groups, embodies an expanding common ground between the two movements. Presenting a national blueprint for sustainable, environmentally friendly development, the group’s 2004 report declared, "For too long, the debate over America’s energy future has been hamstrung by the outdated notion that there’s an inherent tradeoff between environmental and economic priorities."

For Haskins, the challenge of mapping out a progressive energy plan is the reconciliation of interests that have long seemed at odds. The crux of transforming the energy system while preserving jobs, he believes, is bearing in mind that "We can’t trade off today for tomorrow."

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Michelle Chen is a staff journalist.

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